The month of November highlights many diseases and the resounding message that early detection of these diseases can save lives. Among these is Pancreatic Cancer Month, which seeks to uphold the Hirshberg Foundation’s mission to “shine a light on this disease.”
This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimated about 60,000 people would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About 3% of all patients diagnosed with cancer are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Moreover, 7% of all cancer deaths are caused by pancreatic cancer.
What does your pancreas do?
Your pancreas is an organ in your body that makes the enzymes that help you digest food. Additionally, it produces insulin, which is crucial in managing your body’s source of energy. Because of this, diabetic patients are at an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer.
These roles make up the two main functions of the pancreas, the endocrine and exocrine functions. Exocrine is for digestion and endocrine is for blood sugar management. About 95% of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses are exocrine pancreatic cancer.
For additional information, see this fact sheet from pancreatic.org.
How is pancreatic cancer identified?
Unlike colon cancer, for example, there is not a specific type of screening that is used to identify pancreatic cancer.
Instead, only patients with symptoms or substantial risk factors are screened for pancreatic cancer. This is done with a series of imaging scans, blood tests, and biopsies.
Common symptoms include stomach pain, mid-back pain, unexplained weight loss, jaundice, loss of appetite, indigestion, changes in stool, or a recent diabetes diagnosis.
Unfortunately, these symptoms are often not prevalent early on, which can make early diagnosis difficult. This is why being aware of your family history and the common risk factors of pancreatic cancer are so crucial.
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has a worksheet and interactive test on its website that can help individuals find a rough estimate of their risk for pancreatic cancer.
The test will assess if you fall into any of the highest risk groups.
As mentioned previously, risk increases with age and weight or if you currently are living with pancreatitis, diabetes, or are a smoker. Lastly, if any of your blood relatives have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, this raises your personal risk. More details on this can be found on the worksheet on the Action Network’s website.